Sean Ryan: Return of the Irish Troubadour

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music, Artist Feature,   From Issue 625   By: Robert E Martin

02nd November, 2006     0

For those that remember the 'renaissance days' of folk music in the tri-cities back in the 1970s and early eighties, when troubadours like Loose Caboose and soloists like Sean Ryan would roam the watering holes of Mid-Michigan, a special surprise is in store on Friday & Saturday, Nov. 10th & 11th when Ryan returns to the tri-cities with his son Patrick for a special Dinner Show at Sullivan's Black Forest.

Sean Ryan has been a fixture in Mid and Northern Michigan entertainment for the past thirty-two years. Born and raised in County Cork, Ireland, his family immigrated to the United States when he was thirteen.

Upon graduation from Illinois State University in 1972 with a degree in English, he taught English at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, until 1974.

In the fall of 1974, Sean moved to Michigan, cutting his teeth performing in local clubs & restaurants, honing his unique blend of anecdote mingled with musical balladry, while settling in Petoskey, where he lives on a twenty-acre farm with his family.

A teacher and coach in the Petoskey Public Schools, Sean is also the featured house entertainer at the newly restored Stafford's Perry Hotel in Petoskey, where he performs nightly during the peak tourist seasons.

Sean's songs and stories have delighted audiences of all ages, from children to grandparents. He has recorded four albums of his music, and his stirring rendition of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald has been performed at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on the anniversary of the sinking of the ship.

While Sean's roots are in traditional Irish and folk music, Patrick adds the contemporary blend of Dave Matthews and John Mayer to the program.

Sean and Patrick are also two of the founding members of the renowned Petoskey Steel Drum Band and have performed with the band at Mardi Gras, Disney's Epcot Center and throughout the Caribbean Islands.

With rich & smooth harmonies, their guitar accompaniment is intricate and complimentary, and their humor is always mischievous but gentle.

Recently The Review caught up with Sean to discuss the evolution of his music, his life, and whether or not his perspectives have changed.

Review: So Sean, it's been a passing of the Zodiac or two since you were a regular fixture on the tri-city club scene and we last had the opportunity to chat.  How do you feel your performances and music have evolved over the years?  Are they still essentially grounded in the same values that propelled your appearances locally back in the 1970s and '80s?

Ryan:  Yes! I still believe in the "story" nature of the music: a funny story, a serious story, a reflective story. The whole concept of our show is that an audience of diverse people wants to be entertained as well as challenged to think.

It is almost like the faces of Comedy and Tragedy that hang together in the one frame. My music and stories still spring from my life experiences and memories. I still enjoy telling a good story, be it funny or serious, and then singing a complementary song. It is now and always has been about the specific audience at the moment of the performance.

When people spend money and drive some distance to see you perform, you had better take care of them during the time that they are trusting you. I love to help people have a good time!

Review: One thing that's changed is you are no longer a solo act. What is it like performing with your son and how does it feel witnessing his talents evolve? Do the two of you rehearse together much and have you collaborated on any original material together?

Ryan:  Performing with my son is indescribable and so very natural. Over the years I have performed with many famous and not-so-famous people, but I can honestly say that I have never enjoyed sharing the stage with anyone more than my son, Patrick. We have such a natural feel for where we are going musically, and I can honestly say that I have never trusted another performer more than I do Pat. He has an amazing gift and such a pleasant voice.

I can't remember actually sitting down and teaching him much. He just seemed to grasp the music and the technique readily, and at a very early age showed a genuine love and appreciation for the guitar and music in general. As a "hands on" dad, my children have always been my main concern in my life and we share a very close bond and deep respect for each other.

Both my son Patrick and my daughter Kathleen have been blessed with a love and appreciation for music and they have also been blessed with the talent to express themselves through their music.

Patrick and I really don't rehearse much since we have been around each other for twenty-one years and he has been raised on my music and my sometimes warped sense of humor, which seems to have rubbed off on him. We do knock heads every once in a while since he is musically trained in the scholarly sense and I am thick-as-a-brick when it comes to technical music terminology and training; however, he constantly reminds me that I actually do know more about music than I think I know. People who have seen us together on stage say it is like watching me thirty years ago.

Patrick and I love to take old songs and add a new twist, be it musically or lyrically. He has taken some songs that I have written over the years and done his own special arrangements, which are quite beautiful and different.

Review:  What have been some of the professional highlights in the odyssey of your career over the years that stick in your mind?

Ryan:  I have been blessed with good, solid, wonderfully diverse and talented mentors over the years. While living and teaching in Chicago years ago, The late Gamble Rogers and the late Walt Conley took me under their immensely talented wings and encouraged me not to deny the music that was within me. They were the ones to encourage me to come to Michigan back in 1974 and that has forever changed my life.

After writing "America's Star" for the United States Marshal's Service, I had the opportunity to travel to Hollywood and perform with Bob Hope, Gene Autry, Hoyt Axton, and Sly Stallone.

I was truly honored to be asked by the Michigan State Police to write their anthem, "Blue Diamonds," which, as a video, is played at all the Academy graduations, and is quite a moving presentation.

Some of my mentors have passed on; Steve Goodman, Rick Nelson, Jim Croce, Gamble Rogers, Walt Conley. But what they taught me remains and the music remains. I have passed that on to Patrick and remind him often that the gift of music is just that, a gift that does not belong to anyone but has to be passed on.

Review:  What do you feel is the most challenging component of maintaining a musical career of any duration?

Ryan:  I think the biggest challenge for any entertainer is maintaining the edge of freshness in the live performance of the music. I have been singing some of the same songs for over thirty years because they stand the test of time. They are requested classics of American music.

Rarely do I perform a song exactly the same way twice.

I always try to vary the music a little, which, as you might guess, could drive a classically trained artist such as Patrick, right up the wall.

When we first began performing together, he would cast disapproving glances my way if I should vary from the written, published, original text of the music, but lately I have noticed him changing the songs as we go along. It can get really boring doing the same songs the same way all the time.

Review:  How many original compositions do you have now and how many total songs in your repertoire? Do your shows vary much from town-to-town?

Ryan:  I usually answer this question by saying that I know about a thousand songs, give or take a thousand. Actually, I know one song less than the one I am currently working on. As an English teacher I just realized that I ended a sentence with a preposition and a preposition is not a word to end a sentence with!

Our live performances have never been and never will be the same two nights in a row. The audience is different every nigh and the chemistry is always different with each group of people.

As far as original music and songs, there are quite a few written by the "unknown folksinger!"

Review:  How did you become involved with the Petoskey Steel Drum Band and what are your musical objectives with that group?

Ryan:  As a teacher and educator, I love being around young people. Without sounding trite, they are our future, and if I can pass on any knowledge or lessons from my life journey, I want to do that.

The Steel Drum Band idea came from my friend and Patrick's Middle School and High School teacher, Barry Bennett, about ten years ago, and he asked me to help out, do vocals and generally mentor the kids. Patrick was in seventh grade at the time and today he also still performs and teaches with the band, as does my daughter, Kathleen. It is a tremendous program and we have such a talented group of kids that changes every year.

Review:  Any other closing thoughts you'd like to share?

Ryan:  Indeed many moons have come over the purple mountains in the east and settled on the Saginaw Valley since last I sang there.

Some good friends have passed on and I will miss seeing their faces at the show. But I return with a gift... my son. I am more excited about music now than I have been in a long time and it will be a joy to share that with some old friends and new friends.

Sean & Patrick Ryan will be performing at Sullivan's Black Forest on Friday & Saturday, November 10 & 11th. Tickets are $30.00 and include a deluxe buffet with dessert table and chocolate fountain along with the show. Phone 989-652-6400 for ticket purchase.


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